So I got to watch The Hunger Games two nights ago, partly because of an impulse to reward myself after a rather frantic week, and mostly because Abbey happens to be a fan of the Suzanne Collins novels. I haven’t read the books myself, due to an enduring reluctance to read young adult fiction (case in point: I haven’t gone beyond the third book of the Harry Potter series and likely never will) but my fondness for dystopic narratives, female protagonists and anything remotely resembling Battle Royale made it easy to decide to watch the first of the movie adaptations.
Now obviously, there are infinite ways to interpret a film (or a book), with some interpretations more easily made and more widely shared than others, but The Hunger Games occurred to me as a particularly scathing—and delightful—indictment of reality-based television. Conceptually, there isn’t much of a difference between the fictional Hunger Games and the Survivor television series (the latter’s blurb could easily apply to the former: Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.). If anything, the Hunger Games is Survivor on steroids (or at least Survivor taken in its literal sense).
What’s frightening is that this portrayal of the commodification and consumption of “real-life people and their stories” isn’t a piece of dystopic fiction anymore but concrete and contemporary reality.* We’ve become accustomed to the spectacle of real-life people being thrown into situations involving a competition of one kind or another and we derive voyeuristic pleasure in watching their supposedly unscripted reactions and responses. But we all know that an awareness of being watched influences our reactions and responses—mostly in a direction that increases the probability of our continuing to be watched. (Let’s face it: human beings enjoy getting and sustaining the attention of others of their kind.)
The consequences of this are depicted all too clearly in The Hunger Games. Imagine a public addicted to the spectacle of “real-life” human drama—drama “real” enough to provoke voyeuristic satisfaction, but “spectacle” enough to suspend compassion and moral action. (Imagine cheering a procession of 24 young men and women—while fully knowing that 23 of them will die.) Imagine real people gradually, then consistently, altering their behaviors to enhance their appeal to such a public—until their projections become reality itself. (Imagine Katniss Everdeen playing the role of Peeta Mellark’s star-crossed lover to curry the favor of enraptured viewers.) Imagine, finally, a public so desensitized to these consequences that it doesn’t even consider them as consequences worth examining, or even just as consequences. (Imagine Effie Trinket asking the watching crowd to give a round of applause right after Katniss Everdeen consigns herself to her probable death to save her younger sister.)
It’s a dark and sobering portrayal of a feature of contemporary life, in other words, and just because it does it so bitingly and unforgivingly, I’d recommend The Hunger Games to anyone inclined to watch a movie in the next few weeks. Here’s to hoping that the sequel does an even better job.
* In this, as well as in many other things, the Romans preceded us with their gladiatorial games. The “real-ness” of gladiatorial combat was not likely a key feature of their appeal, however, limiting the usefulness of this analogy.
** I was gratified to discover, after writing this post, that Suzanne Collins was inspired to write her books after watching a reality-based television show and that the Roman gladiatorial games did form part of the narrative’s conceptual framework. Like I said, everyone’s free to interpret a film or a book in their own way, and, it’s nice to know that one’s interpretation dovetails nicely with the creator’s intentions. Especially if one hasn’t even read the creator’s books.